Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Love conquers all?
The enjoyable, moving The Descendents (written and directed by Alexander Payne, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) smartly depicts how a major development in a family- in this case, a tragedy- immediately steamrolls and negates all petty drama and grievances, and quite efficiently illuminates everyone's true colors and true feelings.
George Clooney is terrific as Matt King, a marginal parent who all of a sudden is thrust into the role of central parent and responsibility bearer when a boating accident puts his wife Elizabeth into a coma. Things become more complicated when it becomes clear that Elizabeth isn't going to wake up, and that her legal wishes indicate that she doesn't want to be kept alive via artificial means if a situation like her current one ever arose.
Despite the subject matter, the film isn't relentlessly sad. It's nice to see the strong bond that immediately develops between Matt and his oldest daughter Alexandra (beautifully played by Shailene Woodley), who tosses aside the usual teen issues that drove a wedge between her and her parents in recent years, and starts helping her dad put her mother's affairs in order and prepare for her funeral.
And when I use the word "affairs" above, I don't just mean finances and legal stuff. Matt soon learns from his daughter that he wasn't the only imperfect spouse in their family, though he is shocked to learn exactly what his wife was up to during her last months.
With the help of his family, and one or two hangers-on, Matt puts things to rest during the course of the movie, resulting in situations that are funny, sad, moving, sometimes ridiculous, but always very human. It's interesting that Matt's forgiveness of his wife's infidelity comes fairly early on (though residual anger surfaces here and there), because there's work to be done. Despite what he's learned, he's determined to put his wife to rest with dignity and love, and to honor her memory properly with friends and family.
Filling out the movie are some beautiful locations in Hawaii, a quirky subplot involving Matt and Alexandra trying to locate Elizabeth's secret lover (despite their negative feelings about that part of her life, they want to give the guy the opportunity to properly say goodbye to her), and another subplot involving a major land deal being overseen my Matt, which ultimately ties into the movie's theme of identifying what's really important in life.
In the end, The Descendents is an involving family drama that honestly earns the emotions it brings forth. And, really, don't let the premise scare you off. You'll likely leave the film feeling upbeat and chatty, ready to discuss the film's humor and humanity.